Coding collective conformity or RTFM

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3 Responses

  1. Julie Cohen says:

    Our critical contrarian reader seems to be a closeted liberal. There’s no grand tension between the “liberal politics of free speech and liberty” and the collective conformity to the F/OSS ethos. What Coleman documents (in my view compellingly) is not the emergence of liberal utopia, but rather liberalism as (sub)culture. Members of F/OSS communities enact their commitments to freedom in the domain of the technical, in ways that are simultaneously enabled and constrained by liberalism’s emphasis on individual agency.

  2. Gabriella Coleman says:

    Thanks for your comments. I just do want to clarify that while my title may imply a more general sense of freedom, as the word seems to always do, in the book, specifically chapter 2, I tried to narrow the optic significantly to argue that free software hackers have *not* had a fundamental, writ large impact on society (good or bad) but have more narrowly engendered positive changes in IP law. And in fact they themselves tend to shy away from discourses that make grand claims about the politics of their actions.

    All too often others impute much larger claims about freedom and democracy, which simply do not hold water and why I refrain from using terms like the “hacker revolution.” I use the term freedom as they embrace to argue for their productive autonomy and yes, it has had substantial and I think positive effect but largely in the realm of access and law, which is nothing to downplay either.

    As per surveillance, I am skeptical hacking can be correlated with its rise, especially since the state instituted protocols for secrecy and surveillance before they existed and in part due to the nuclear bomb and the cold war. It is interesting that so far some of the most notable critics of surveillance (Assange, Snowden, etc.) have been hackers, risking quite a lot to inform the public about state abuse. So I am intrigued by your term collective conformity and would like to hear more by what you mean.

    Lately I have been thinking quite a bit about the interface between participation and expertise in digital domains and have started to pen some thoughts about their dual life in places like free software and Wikipedia. A cadre of experts-programmers, designers, system administrators or technically-minded journalists and policy makers-have become prominent actors in fields of endeavor, such as open source software, often heralded as open, in quite simplistic ways. It is not that openness is merely or always ideological or without substance either, thought it can be. Openness often comes to stand in for older meritocratic ideals in which no artificial or excessive barriers to access are erected but there are all sorts of barriers, formal and informal. Skill is often a pre-requisite for participation and yet these spaces also double as pedagogical laboratories. They are platforms where participants learn and refine a range of technical, legal, political, and artistic skills. It seems ripe to turn to these sites to revisit classic debates in communication over the public’s role in democratic life such as those posed in the 1920s in radically distinct fashion by Walter Lippmann and John Dewey. Whereas Lippmann championed the expert as a necessary interface between the public and government, Dewey famously valued the role of citizen in directly participating in democratic life. They provide a useful touchstone by which to interrogate the making of new experts, the various social interfaces and mechanisms that may (or may not) connect experts to publics, and how expertise might be changing under digital conditions.

  3. Nicklas Lundblad says:

    @Cohen, you know the reason I wanted to explore this was that while reading I became increasingly unsure that freedom was the most interesting way to analyze what was going on here. The emphasis on individual agency is not unique to theories of freedom, and as opposed to some kind of determinism not the analytical category that perhaps extract the most meaning from the material. The sneaking suspicion I got was that maybe it is easy to associate free software with freedom just because of its self-representation, and that additional layers of understanding could be unearthed if we assume other analytical categories. I do think Coleman does that in her analysis of meritocracy and frustration — together these two make up interesting poles for any reading, and it is not one that needs to be forced into Millian liberalism discourses. The combination of frustration – with code, with people, with democracy – as expressed in the RTFM and the meritocracy expressed in that same rebuff for me is more interesting to explore than the connection with liberalism writ large, or, small.

    @Coleman, I agree, there is that delimitation, but I think my intention, accomplished partly or not at all, was to show that the analytical category of freedom may well – even when it comes to IP – be less interesting than the construction of an alternative set of property discourses. I am not even sure that it is a question of productive freedom, but rather that we see the rise of a new productive mechanism that can be analyzed as collective or collaborative, and with a high need for coordination and conformity. That does not make it bad, although all of these words come with biases, of course (freedom is good, conformity bad et cetera). To me the real question raised by the possible critical reading is if what you document is analyzed at its richest if we perhaps avoid the notion of freedom altogether, and instead explore it from other perspectives. I think that what you write about openness applies to freedom to, it is used in a legitimacy language game that forces our reading into the categories of liberalism where they live uncomfortably, but more than so, less generatively, than in other categories. On the question of meritocracy, I think there is an even more fundamental challenge here that I wonder if it has been examined and that is the power laws of participation – the fact that participation always seems to organize social networks into hub participators with rich interactions and node participators that form the periphery of any network, and what that means for the resulting social form of organization. For at least a few brands of liberalism, I would argue, the very point was to dissolve those power law distributions of power into smaller segments, or atoms of individuality, an individuality — to Julie Cohen’s point — that is subsumed under the meritocratic structures of the F/OSS social compliance mechanisms.

    In the final analysis I think the observation of the dual workings of frustration and meritocracy really lend themselves to a different interpretation, that is equally interesting as the connection with even a delimited freedom concept.